Oliphant Extra – Tom Flanagan: Defender of Her Majesty’s Loyal Exempt Staffers

Earlier this month, a missive by everyone’s favourite former Harper advisor Tom Flanagan popped up on the official Oliphant website. Written in response to a draft research paper prepared for the commission by Dr. Paul Thomas, it is a polite, but strongly worded rebuttal to what he saw as an unfair characterization of the Praetorian guard of political staffers that  make up the inner circle of the Prime Minister’s Office.

First of all, he scolds Thomas for “labelling” them as “political staff”, suggesting instead that “it would be better to use the federal government’s normal term: “exempt staff” – a distinction that ITQ cannot remember the Flanagan-era Reform, Canadian Alliance or Conservative parties having made during their collective and respective years on the opposition benches.

These “designated ministerial employees”, he notes, are exempt from some Public Service Commission rules relating to recruitment, compensation and termination, as well as the “nature of the work that they are hired to perform”, but other than that, they are “public servants in the broader sense”.

That, however, is not his main gripe with Thomas — he also objects to the description of said staffers as “potentially too zealous in their loyalty to the prime minister,” suffering from “a lack of experience and judgment, or a lack of issues and the contexts in which they arise,” deficient in training, and operating with “no code of conduct to guide their behaviour”. He takes particular issue with the following section:

In terms of the focus of this study, the concern about political staff is that they are potentially too zealous in their loyalty to the prime minister or their minister, and too inclined to see governing as a permanent campaign in which protecting the boss is the number one priority. A former deputy minister interviewed for this study described PMO staff as “political warriors” and “spear-carriers for the prime minister.”

This unflattering portrait is probably unfair to most political staff who work at the centre of government or in ministerial offices. It is probably more appropriate to assume that a broad spectrum of people and behaviours are found in these influential roles. The extent of staff influence depends partly on the leadership style of the prime minister or minister and on the amount of discretion entrusted to political staff.

Some prime ministers will want as much information as possible; others will prefer not to know certain things. To a large extent, it is the prime minister who shapes the culture and climate of the PMO. If the tone set at the top is that there must be no mistakes or problems that embarrass the prime minister, then the likelihood is greater that attempts will be made to manipulate information and lessen vulnerability by covering up problems.

However, not all breakdowns in communications are intentional. They can result from a lack of experience and judgment, a lack of competence in terms of information gathering and the provision of advice, or a lack of understanding of issues and the contexts in which they arise. There is not much, if any, training given to ministerial staff and no code of conduct to guide their behaviour. Learning on the job in the PMO is risky for everyone involved.

Flanagan’s response:

People appointed to these positions, especially Chief of Staff, usually hold advanced educational qualifications such as LL.B, MBA, or Ph.D. and have a record of accomplishment in law, business, elective politics, or academia. Appointees in recent decades have included eminent Canadians such as Derek Burney and Senator Hugh Segal (Conservative), and Jean Pelletier and Eddie Goldenberg (Liberal). People with such qualifications and experience don’t forget everything they have learned about competence and accountability as soon as they go to work for the PMO or OLO. It is they who are in daily contact with staff, and they play a vital role in setting standards.

The Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff also plays a supervisory role over all exempt staff in Ministers’ offices, reviewing the senior appointments, holding frequent meetings at the chief of staff level, giving instructions to carry out the Prime Minister’s policies, and in general making sure that exempt staff are supporting the government with competence and integrity. This mirrors, on a smaller scale, the role of the Clerk of the Privy Council as head of the public service. Again, the conclusion is that exempt staff are not free agents but are integrated into an organizational structure. […]

Exempt staff are human beings, and like all human beings they may make mistakes; they work in a human institution, which, like all human institutions, is imperfect. But one should not lose sight of the sources contributing to their professionalism, competence, and accountability. Though exempt from some Public Service Commission rules, they work in a public-service environment subject to legal and accounting controls, and they are conscious of their boundaries. They are supervised by experienced and qualified senior officials often brought in from other walks of life. And they regard it as an honour and a challenge to work in the PMO, which means that the PMO can draw from the most experienced and qualified people available.

If that is, indeed, the case, ITQ can’t help but wonder just who Flanagan blames for the fallout from last fall’s fiscal update. From The Globe and Mail (06/13/2009):

“Before the fall fiasco, [Mr. Harper] wasn’t exactly loved by the public, but he was widely respected by political observers as a competent manager and shrewd strategist. After his misadventure with the political subsidy issue, many are saying that his strategic sense has been overrated,” he writes in the 2009 version of Harper’s Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power .

“This is a dangerous development, for if you are not to be loved you must at least be respected.”[…]

Mr. Harper’s government was brought to the brink of defeat last year after he tried to scrap political subsidies during a fall economic update and opposition parties united against him. Prof. Flanagan believes this forced Mr. Harper to prepare a big-spending budget in order to coax the Liberals out of a coalition to defeat him.

“It was probably his single worst mistake not just as prime minister, but in his career as a party leader,” Prof. Flanagan says of the subsidy move, adding it not only inflamed rivals, but made Mr. Harper “appear to be playing political games at a time of national crisis.”

It’s true that the post-EFU showdown-cum-meltdown had little to do with ethics, and everything to do with a spectacularly ill-concieved strategic gambit. But still, what about all that competence and accountability that was supposed to be coming from the senior ranks of PMO, particularly the chief of staff?  As far as ITQ knows, no one lost his or her job over a judgment call that could have cost them all their jobs, simultaneously. Even if Flanagan puts the blame squarely on the prime minister himself, and no one else, shouldn’t one of those experienced and qualified senior staffers have spoken up, given the inevitable outcome — or at least made sure that the prime minister was aware of the risk?

Unless, of course,  some staff — particularly those who are new to PMO, and, in many cases, to government — may, indeed, be lacking experience and judgment, and run the risk of being “too zealous in their loyalty to the prime minister”. In that case, they may well welcome additional guidance – whether through on-the-job training on how to handle specific ethical issues, or a code of conduct for staff on how to manage potential conflicts. That’s all that Thomas is suggesting — yet somehow, that was enough to rouse Flanagan — who, as far as ITQ knows, has never actually worked in a prime minister’s office —  to mount an impassioned defence of the good character of political staffers — against a charge that Thomas doesn’t appear to have actually made.

Still, the good professor’s submission is definitely worth reading, if only for the insight that it gives into his view of how a properly run PMO ought to work — and it’s short, although it would probably be easier to follow if you plow through Thomas as well.

UPDATE: Commenter Scott passes on the following observations:

If, as Flanagan says on page 2, “a great deal of effort goes into determining what they may do [as political staff] and what must be left to political parties, which are beyond the ambit of government,” why did the Prime Minister’s two chief spokespeople, both of whom work in senior capacities in the taxpayer-funded PMO, act as chief party attack dogs a few months ago? Simply saying they took the day off is poor cover, when they’re using government Blackberries, are in constant contact with government staff, and are acting in such a quasi-official setting. The issue isn’t just pay, it’s the role of exempt staff. Could the Tories find no one else, or was Thomas right in his assessment?

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